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Interview: Artist Freya Tewelde's 'Parable of the Seven' at The Smallest Gallery in Soho

Picture a fiction, “a climate of extreme destruction. Struck by environmental and political disaster, the United States has descended into an apocalyptic landscape, which—despite the promises of President Donner—seems largely unsalvageable”. This is the synoptic of science-fiction author Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, an uncanny echoing of our current climate, and inspiration for Freya Tewelde’s latest consolidation of her video work, Parable of the Seven, installed at The Smallest Gallery in Soho.

Working as a multidisciplinary fine artist, Freya’s work explores the aesthetics of culture and social domination, often at the individual and micro level. Her interrogation naturally invokes the body and clothing as an archive, interfacing with garments and mundane items as performance work captured on video.

Through a series of distinctly playful scenes with titles like Suffocation, and Rollerblading, faceless figures layer themselves in clothing and objects, placing the cultural semiotics of each artefact into sharp relief, and exposing the everyday protocols which burden or free us from cultural identity. Through the display of confusion, absurdity and clowning with everything from religious garb to roller blades, boxing gloves to piles of clothing, and costume masks to ill-fitting shoes, Tewelde both parodies and transcends the territorialism that comes with the cultural symbols which bear down upon the wearer.

Some brightly coloured and chromophilic, others intentionally muted, Tewelde presents these abstract micro-comedies against the social backdrop of our pandemic, exposing the ageing importance of cultural and identitarian separation for universal welfare and crisis survival; both in the urgent present, and near futures faced with ecological disaster.

In this way the work is as much macro, pointing symbolically towards her broader belief in an imminent paradigmatic shift, or even accelerationism towards universalism, post-identity, and eventually, the utopian vision of post-humanism. This ‘anti-anthropocentrism’ is to in effect strive beyond archaic concepts which place us as central to the planetary narrative; beyond the primitivist instinct to conquer and territorialise as we have done so often through history – and move towards global values in constant adaptation to our ecology and growing technoscientific knowledge. The dystopian alternative she speculates, would be the continued marginalisation, inequality and through misuse, technological violence towards BIPOC diaspora and those already disenfranchised.

Of course, these ideas belong to the paradox that culture and identity have shaped us, shaped modernity. Through distortion and manipulation, Tewelde’s use of video deepens the contradictions and liminality between freedom and oppression, empowerment and disempowerment, identity and non-identity. And perhaps it is true, that many of us have grown unable to recognise a distinction. Either way, Tewelde’s work is a refreshingly allegorical practice of futurology, contained within her multicoloured and mischievous spectacles. Sat at a historical threshold, or the strange limbo of a “waiting room” as Tewelde describes, it remains to be seen which kind of epoch we will rollerblade our way into.

Image credit: 'Parable of the Seven' by Freya Tewelde at The Smallest Gallery in Soho

Anastasia Niedinger: It’s a pleasure to be chatting, how did yourself and The Smallest Gallery in Soho come together to bring The Parable of Seven to life?
Freya Tewelde:
We met in East London at a Private View. We had a great conversation that led to a discussion about my work and eventually a studio visit... over time our relationship grew and I was invited to work on this project, The Parable of the Seven, where I wanted to pay homage to Octavia Butler and her title The Parable of The Sower which resonates on this very dystopian time and sense we are experiencing during this third lockdown in London.
Anastasia: Why video? You have a background as a painter and are skilled in working with this medium. Is there an aesthetic relationship between painting and moving image on a screen you were drawn to?
As an artist, I respond to most mediums and at the moment I am using moving images which for me highlight the present insecurities of our time. I am interested in how we predict our future and how this integrates into our everyday hopes and desires. At the same time my interaction is aesthetically complex, intuitive and meditative; and this fluidity of making is a crucial part of my process of working as an artist.

In particular, the narrative of memory, repetition and abstraction of what’s happening and how it exists is important within all disciplines that collaborate with painting, people, drawing, image making, and video performance, etc. And how this falls short of clarity but lands more interestingly on the qualities of video that expose a distortion or opaqueness which currently feels cultural and timely in my practice.
Anastasia: Many of your works are playful, you might even say satirical reflections of the absurdities or contradictions of present-day culture. These are underpinned by the theoretical and philosophical currents which your work subtly drives towards: post-identity and eventually post- humanism. These are not new, but certainly not mainstream ideas. When did you realise you aligned with them?
Working today as an artist, I do think we all have a responsibility to address the state of the world we live in together with all its contradictions. I attempt to make people think differently, sometimes ethically, other times imaginatively and occasionally, this arrives in a satirical form – but most importantly, I hope people will continue to identify, and engage with their surroundings.

There are increasingly periods during the pandemic lockdown where my community (or my inner circle) are now really questioning how such themes that you ask ‘post-humanism & post-identity’ seem like a different concern and presently they offer a darker tone to what we all face together over the coming year(s).
Before the pandemic, it was really important to push these challenges, always striving for the marginal voice to be heard, and now I am wondering who is really marginal in a world that could change so radically in such a short space of time. What is it to belong and bring people together through art during a pandemic for example? The images I try to produce are without racialised violence or hierarchies of power but rather the everyday questions that surround my life and others.
Anastasia: Can you elaborate on the tension between the importance of identity, (a fundamental mechanism of our civilisational development thus far), and the increasing limitations of identity which you see the next human epoch abandoning? Is it necessary to honour our identity before transcending and dissolving it?
Your question brings forward its own concern with this idea of ‘increasing limitations’ and this is where I position the current state of identity as ‘a fundamental mechanism of our civilisational development thus far’, etc.

What helps is working as an artist where I can explore the spaces before exposure, the invisible workings of a roller–skater or the boxer, the close examination of dark screens, and the sounds that suggest something else we can or cannot identify with. I never feel abandoned but I do relate more to the notion of adoption, or even closer to a world that continues to shift, mutate and network.
Anastasia: You do a lot of amazing extra-curricular work, which sometimes organises around womanhood for example. How do you bring your ideas into those spaces, which ostensibly mobilise around shared identity?
I always respond to the context I am invited in to. And in having those conversations, I am learning and loving the shared experience which is something we all need to cherish. Participation and listening are essential at the moment and especially when we consider the state of political governance and social upheaval in America for example. My focus is to use my art to help support those social exchanges through public engagement and how this raises equality and justice for everyone while exposing the contradictions that we all face today.
Anastasia: Among the more playful pieces, Lost for Territory is an exception, containing a darker vision of the future where BIPOC diaspora appear in tension with technological acceleration, and technological violence as you call it. Could you elaborate a bit about these themes? Are we at risk of this future and why?
Lost for Territory is a looping black and white sound and video installation which explores a 48 second vision in the future. As the world accelerates and persists, our sensitivity to lost practices and forgotten heritages arises with figurative and fugitive configurations. This work sits closely between the various realms that enter the blackness of Afro-futurism, which undoubtedly stems from the Afro-diasporic experience.
Lost for Territory presents an undulating vision of the future, one that is eternally wrapped between creation, myth and destruction.
Anastasia: Can you give an insight into the global pandemic and its relationship to your art practice, and perhaps also artistic philosophy? We’ve touched on themes of post-identity and I wonder if you see this global crisis as accelerating, or stagnating that evolution?
Under the banner of what is sometimes referred to as ‘glitch art’ or more generally ‘new media art’ during this COVID_19 pandemic – I am increasingly aware these terms exist more prominently than before the pandemic in my practice. Like everyone else, I am also coming to terms with a very unstable sense of what will happen next. However, this does allow and lend new platforms to interact with all kinds of practices.

Equally it has offered a new space to view art online that might otherwise have been overlooked offline. Having said this, I appreciate much more now what it means to view work in a physical space – the aura of a work is notably a different concern experience / [area of consideration]. Without entering the discussion of aura in art (although that is fascinating in the pandemic!) I sense that everyone within my community is very aware of a new moment in contemporary art and what the future holds in terms of audiences and performance engagements, going to be really interesting to experience and watch.
Anastasia: What role does your own background and cultural experiences play in your interpretation of identity?
Well, it plays in two parts and in a rather unstructured way having reference to my heritage but also equally, I like the idea of how ‘soundscape’ appeals to our emotional world.

The waiting room is a very significant moment, like a vacuum in a room or in the soundscape of hearing and listening - the idea of ‘deep listening’ by Pauline Oliveros is a prime example. However in previous exhibitions, I have adopted garments (kidan habesha) as a corporal structure of the body alongside the instrumental use of Eritrean jazz music from the 1960’s and 70’s before they have been dubbed in present times.

For me, these unique sounds explore a distinct cultural transition of images from the past in Eritrean terms as well as offering a reminder of our global world with all its current media absorption.

Freya Tewelde: 'Parable of the Seven'
The Smallest Gallery in Soho

62 Dean Street, Soho, London, W1D 4QF
February - March 2021

Freya Tewelde | | Instagram | Twitter

'Parable of the Seven' was curated by Philip Levine and Andreia Costa.

About the Curators:
Philip Levine
Philip has been working in the creative and cultural industries for the last decade as a producer. This has ranged from exhibitions, events, publishing, talks and creating his own unique artwork under the title ‘Headism’. He has gained a MA in Culture, Policy and Management at City, University of London. Being from London, his passion is knowing ‘who and what’ is up and coming in cultural trends and being involved within them. Read the Run-Riot interview with Philip Levine, here.
Andreia Costa
Andreia is an Associate Architect at Jamie Fobert Architects. She studied in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Porto and practiced for 3 years in her native Portugal. Before moving to the UK Andreia decided to explore her contemporary art interest by working in Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art as an architecture and art lecturer. In 2010 she joined Jamie Fobert Architects, where she has been involved in several projects including Selfridges and Tate exhibitions.


Image credit: 'Parable of the Seven' by Freya Tewelde at The Smallest Gallery in Soho

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